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A Faith for People Whose Ears Don’t Itch

October 28, 2013

“A Faith for People Whose Ears Don’t Itch” 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5 © 10.27.13 Ordinary 30C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A few weeks ago we noticed that our dog Chloe was often pawing at her ears and scratching them vigorously. She kept shaking her head as if trying to dislodge something inside it. We took her to the vet, and it turned out she had an ear infection down deep that caused itching and discomfort. Fortunately, we got treatment and medication that helped her pretty quickly.

Our dog was restless and focused on the unpleasant sensation in a very sensitive part of her body. That’s the thing about an itch, whether in a dog or a human. We can’t quite seem to get comfortable; we’re consumed with finding relief.

The physical sensation of discomfort and misery associated with itching suggested the metaphorical use. There’s the infamous “seven-year itch” in relationships when boredom and sameness set in and one or both partners feels dissatisfied, maybe begins to have a wandering eye. Or we say “I’m itching to get out of here.” Again, a restlessness, a desire for something different or new. All these are reflected in the common dictionary definitions. To itch is to have an impatient desire, a hankering. Someone who is itchy has a strong yearning to travel, to get away.

People with itching ears, then, always want to hear something new and different. They’re never quite satisfied with what has been said before; the answers once given don’t seem right or adequate. They want to accumulate the latest ideas like they do trendy fashions or the newest digital devices. They’re the ones who love to spread the latest spin on end-of-the-world scenarios or hang on every word of some popular mega-church preacher. They will baptize the hottest management techniques or decide that this or that style of music is right for worship because it’s what people want. Itchy ear folks want to scratch that itch with something right now, relieve the longing with instant satisfaction.

Please don’t misunderstand. Neither the text nor I am criticizing people who are impatient with the pat answers of the past or the too-simple solutions of the present. We are not saying we cannot be relevant, speaking to our culture and our times in language people understand. Why try to answer questions people aren’t asking?

So what’s the problem the author of 2 Timothy is complaining about? Just this: there are a great many people who don’t want to hear the truth about themselves or their generation or their nation or their church. They want instead to be soothed by soft words spoken by teachers and preachers hand-selected for their readiness to say just what is popular. Itchy-lobed people get together in secret and decide how they can find someone who will say it like they want to hear it. You know: someone who won’t talk too much about sin or following Jesus. Somebody who will bless the status quo. Make people feel religious and warm inside, whatever their actions on Monday morning in business, family or school or even in church on a Sunday. Check the latest polls, attendance figures, and the amount of money in the offering plate before deciding how to present the text from the Bible. Or maybe he or she doesn’t really preach or teach the Bible at all. In a word, somebody who sells out.

What’s being recommended, by stark contrast to faith by opinion poll, is a faith for preacher, teacher, and every Christian that stands the test of time and carries believers through crisis. This faith is distinguished by three characteristics. First, its source material. This isn’t belief based on popular and conventional wisdom. It doesn’t come from the latest study or from self-help best-sellers. It doesn’t arise from prejudice or suspicion or cultural bias. It isn’t what you grew up with or what some tradition or story holds to be true. Its parent is not science or reason or common sense or the law of the land.

That’s not to say this faith doesn’t respect traditions or employ reason or enter into conversation with science and government. It’s not to claim there is no value in self-help books or works of popular spirituality or fiction. It’s not to disparage the teaching or example of your parents and mine. In fact, there is often great and valuable insight to be found in all these sources. But they are secondary, derivative.

My point is that a faith that sustains us has but one primary source: the Bible. The Scriptures alone are “able to instruct [us] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Reformers of the 16th century called that principle “sola Scriptura”—“Scripture alone.” More recently, one of our confessions of faith said this: “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel” (Confession of 1967).

The Bible is important not so much for the historical or scientific or cultural information it contains, but because it tells us about a person named Jesus. Because it reveals to us God’s love, a love so great that God sent his Son to save us by dying on a cross and give us new life by rising from the dead. The Scriptures are the gift of God by the Spirit to teach us about Jesus, to lead us to Jesus, to help us live like Jesus.

And they are the gift we can give to others—to our children, to our parents, to our students, to our teachers, to those who are lost and those who are found, to the challenged and the confident, to the haughty and the humble. The young pastor in the text was a third-generation Christian who had learned the Bible from his grandmother and his mother, as well as from his mentor. All of us stand indebted to someone like that for the gift of the Bible. Maybe you didn’t grow up being taught the Scripture, but you have a Bible in your hands now because a monk long ago was diligent in making it his life’s work to copy the text. Could be you’ve been acquainted with the Bible all your life, but only as a big book put out on the coffee table when the preacher came over, a convenient place to stick family papers and photos of grandparents. You’ve just now begun to know it as a trusted and good friend because someone introduced you to a whole new world within its covers. Or perhaps the beloved verses you memorized in childhood are taking on fresh meaning as your life changes, and you are being given the gift all over again.

Whatever our experience with the Scriptures, they are the source of our faith, because they point us to Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of God and in whom God has made known his mercy for all to see. Know them; love them; pass them on.

But if the source of this faith is a distinguishing mark, so is its attitude toward suffering. Too many people think that those who suffer are being punished by God or at least tested. Those with few goods or who are going through trials or who get criticized in the media for their views must not be blessed. The struggling church, the beleaguered pastor or member, the lonely prophet calling for justice or peace against the crowd: those are surely the ones God has abandoned. And by the same token, those churches with packed pews, the popular preachers, the best-selling authors, the famous musicians, the healthy, wealthy, and well-regarded are automatically God’s favorites, must be doing God’s will.

The text directly contradicts any such ideas. Listen: “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But let’s be clear: the loss of privileged status for a certain viewpoint in the public square does not equal persecution. Nor is everyone persecuted who is in trouble with the law or criticized by the public and the media or having a hard time generally. Instead, the author has in mind people who suffer for truth, justice, and peace, who dare to challenge the status quo maintained by the powerful in church and society.

A faith for people whose ears don’t itch has as one of its marks a respect for such folk, and it seeks to imitate them. Those who embrace this kind of faith count and pay the cost with courage and conviction, even as they maintain confidence in God’s ultimate care for those who stand up for the right.

So a faith for people whose ears don’t itch has the Bible for its source. It has a different attitude toward suffering. And finally, this faith is proven by good works. That takes us back to a statement about the Bible. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible is like one of those Leatherman® multi-tools, with several different kinds of screwdrivers, a file, a couple of knives, a ruler, a bottle opener, and pliers, all in a convenient fold-up package. Or maybe like the Swiss Army knife Richard Dean Anderson carried on the old TV show “MacGyver,” in which he improvised his way out of many a tough spot. If you carry the tool and know how to use it, you’ll be prepared for a lot of situations. You’ll be ready to go to work to solve a problem or give assistance.

There are people who have read the Bible and go around parading their knowledge. “I’ve read the Bible through four times,” they boast. Or they study it just so they can know more than their neighbors intellectually. Wrong! Our knowledge of the Bible is not to be used as a weapon, to intimidate, belittle, proof-text, and criticize, like too many in some churches today. The Bible is not a sword, unless it’s used to pierce our own souls to reveal the truth about ourselves. With our neighbors, it’s a plowshare, to plant hope, trust, and joy. Not a weapon, but a tool. The person who really knows the Bible is not the one who can recite a list of kings or tell you the context of the book of Colossians. Are those things perhaps interesting and important? Yes. But you can know that stuff and still live like a servant of evil. No, the person who truly understands the Scriptures is the one who has its words in his or her heart and is equipped by them for doing good works. It is the person who “does the work of an evangelist,” telling others the good news of Jesus. It is the one who seeks to “carry out…ministry fully,” working for and with others with heart and soul and mind and strength. It is the one who fights terror and fear by taking action to care for others. It is the one who shows by actions that he or she belongs to God, who with conscientious skill carries out what God is calling God’s own to do.

Being faithful is not about being popular or avoiding embarrassment or suffering or controversy. It’s not about saying what people want to hear or making it easy on those who need to be challenged. Nor is it making things hard for those who need a hand up and chance to be heard and included. It is instead about persistence whatever the cost, turning again and again to Scripture to be sustained and equipped, doing good and doing right as God calls us. It’s being tried, but remaining true. It’s to give ultimate allegiance to no other than Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, the One who has come among us in humility and will come to rule. It is to say to God with the songwriter: “Yours is the only throne I’ll ever get down on my knees before; you have the whole of me” (“A Million Lights,” John Ellis).

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